Open Letter from Sandy Smyth

If you live in Delaware, vacation in Delaware, or use the Delaware Inland Bays, please read!

As many of you know, the State of Delaware and DNREC have been trying to establish commercial oyster and clam aquaculture on the inland bays. Many of you probably think this is a great thing. You have been sold on how this will improve the water quality and help the environment. You’ve seen the picture shared around the internet of the dirty water in a fish tank with oysters, and three hours later it is clear. You’ve heard that a few waterfront property owners don’t want it because it is a NIMBY and will spoil their views, but that is their problem because this is going to help the environment and benefit everyone. I am one of those property owners, and I urge you to look into this a little bit deeper to understand what this is really about. This is not about beneficial oyster reefs cleaning up the inland bays; this is about industrial farming on our public waterways that will harm our area far more than the small economic benefit of the few jobs and business that may be created by aquaculture.

There are watermen communities like Lewes and Chincoteague, and there are resort communities like Ocean City, Bethany, Fenwick and Rehoboth. The inland bays are surrounded by resort communities. People come here to vacation. People move here because they want to be here, not normally because they are following a job. People save up their whole lives to buy a retirement home here and enjoy the rest of their days. Why do they come? The beaches and bays of this area are beautiful. The inland bays are great places to kayak, windsurf, waterski, fish, crab, clam and boat, or just to enjoy the natural beauty of the water. The recreational opportunities and aesthetic natural beauty of our bays and beaches are the underpinnings of the local tourism industry and real estate boom. These two “industries” are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into Sussex County in tourism revenue and construction. Beach Cove where I live is conservatively surrounded by well over $100 million in private residences that people built and bought to be able to view and use Beach Cove. I already know of at least one home sale that has fallen through over these proposed farms.

I know many of my friends own or work at businesses that rely on tourism: restaurants, shops, short-term lodging, charters and recreation. Still more work in real estate and construction. Whether you make a living hammering nails or you make a living writing mortgages or doing real estate closings, you know where your bread is buttered. Despite us locals occasionally griping about the tourist hordes who descend upon our area, most of us rely directly or indirectly on them for a living.

We need to be careful we don’t screw up the reason why we are here. Some would argue that raising oysters serves just that purpose. We’ll clean up the water and things will be so much better. But commercial aquaculture is a jobs program. They don’t want to put these farms in the back bays where the water doesn’t get flushed much by the tides and where the nutrient buildup really is. They want to put most of these sites right along Coastal Highway where people live and play. Why there? Because you can’t sell shellfish for human consumption that are harvested from the “red zones”. The waters especially in Indian River that are along Coastal Highway are the cleanest in the bay. There is no ongoing construction runoff. There are no farms. Our cove borders a state park and a nature preserve to the south and uninhabited marshes to the north, and they have allocated a large percentage of plots (27 acres) to be right in our cove.

In my opinion, commercial aquaculture really isn’t appropriate anywhere in the inland bays. They are too small, and they are used for recreation. I’d love to see and would absolutely support establishing oyster reefs throughout the bay, not with an eye on commercial harvest but with the real purpose of helping water filtration where it is needed most. An oyster reef doesn’t have to take up acres, and sits underwater and doesn’t interfere with most existing uses. An oyster farm has most of its equipment at or just below the surface in baskets. It is NOT an unobtrusive use! They have to be tended regularly to prevent the buildup of growth on their shells. This may involve power-washing or tumbling the oysters weekly. It is noisy and smelly. You can’t waterski over an oyster farm, and God help you if you fall off a windsurfer onto an oyster cage just below the surface. If oyster farms belong anywhere, it is away from waterfront communities and recreational areas.

Beach Cove is used extensively for recreation. It is loaded with crabs and clams. It is a bait nursery. It is very shallow on the north side, but the south end gets around 6 feet deep at high tide and is a favorite waterski spot for residents and visitors alike. I personally windsurf there year-round, and many people come back there to ski because it is calmer than the larger bay. My wife and I used to waterski here as teenagers, long before we ever owned a home along the cove. Kayakers and paddle-boarders come back into the cove to paddle up into the streams going back to Fresh Pond State Park and James Farm Nature Preserve. It is a beautiful area. The 27 acres designated for oyster farming effectively take up almost all the navigable water in our cove. There will be no more waterskiing, windsurfing, or kayaking in those areas, and the natural beauty will be blighted by acres of floating cages with white PVC pilings and float tubes. This is public-access water that will be leased to PRIVATE individuals.

Please don’t be tricked into supporting this because you think this is really good for the bays. There are other ways, better ways, to introduce oysters in the inland bays that will truly help the environment without turning our public recreational waters into farms for private use. Educate yourself on this issue if you think you know a little about it. If you have ties to the CIB, get them to publicly ask for these sites to be moved. Bring it up with Sen. Hocker and Rep. Gray and any of our other local politicians. Feel free to share this letter, especially with anyone who posts that fish tank photo and talks about how great this will be. Thank you!

A brief history of how we got here:

Several years ago, the Center for the Inland Bays began working with waterfront residents to see if oysters could grow and be reintroduced to the inland bays. Many of my neighbors along Beach Cove participated in growing oysters in hanging baskets from their docks. The oysters grew well, and were returned to the CIB to build an oyster reef near Pasture Point adjacent to the James Farm Ecological Preserve. No one had a problem with this activity, and it was assumed by many that the goal would be to gradually reintroduce natural oysters throughout the bay to help with water clarity and nutrient build-up.

A few years back, someone got the idea to turn this into a commercial aquaculture operation to create jobs and grow the local economy. This was not what most of the oyster garden participants envisioned at all. There was federal money to grab for aquaculture and our local politicians wanted to bring home a part of it.

Shellfish aquaculture was touted by the CIB and DNREC as a way to help clean up the bays. The fallacy with that is that oysters grown for human consumption can only be farmed where the water is clean. None of the proposed aquaculture sites are located in the “red zones” where nutrient levels are the highest. Had the CIB worked to build natural reefs in the red zones without commercial concerns, the goal to clean up the bay could have been advanced without opposition.

So the Delaware legislature passed a law authorizing aquaculture in the inland bays, with specifics to be worked out by DNREC. The law states that current uses of the water must be considered and these farms could not displace traditional recreational and navigational uses. So far, there was nothing to be concerned about. There are areas away from housing developments, nature preserves and recreational areas that might be suitable for aquaculture.

DNREC, working with the CIB, came up with the proposed areas for aquaculture. They were required to give public notice and hold public hearings before finalizing these plans. While it is arguable whether DNREC followed the letter of the law, they certainly did not follow the spirit. Despite the obvious proximity of the designated sites to several communities (one parcel, for example, starts just a couple hundred feet from the Bayside Hamlet community’s marina), DNREC did not make any attempt to notify these communities that would be directly affected by the designated parcels. The closest analogy would be if an adjacent parcel of land was requesting a zoning change. Notice to the surrounding residents would be required. Designating public natural waters for private industrial use is essentially a rezoning of that water.

Instead, DNREC advertised for the hearings in the back of newspapers and held the hearings during the coldest months of winter when many residents were either not around or not paying attention. As de facto evidence of the insufficiency of public notice, DNREC’s wintertime hearings were attended by at most a couple dozen people (mostly associated with the CIB or commercial fishing interests). When word finally reached a few owners in the communities adjacent to the designated parcels in the fall of 2014, there was such an uproar that State Senator Gerald Hocker and Representative Ron Gray held an impromptu hearing about it in the Millville Fire Hall. Around 200 people showed up, with all but a few people in opposition to the sites chosen by DNREC. 200 people didn’t go from disinterested to protesting in one year; they just didn’t know. Whether insufficient notice was intentional or just negligent, had DNREC given proper notice to the affected communities this all would have been resolved long ago.

To compound the notice issue, the Beach Cove site was originally advertised in the notices as Slough’s Gut. No one lives off Slough’s Gut. Until this all came up, few new where Slough’s Gut was. Slough’s Gut is a small tidal stream that runs between James Farm Ecological Preserve and Fresh Pond State Park. It empties into a small cove which then empties into Beach Cove. You can’t put a notice out about the wrong place and then after approval, claim that sufficient notice was given. Beach Cove would have raised alarms. If DNREC wants to approve oyster farms on Slough’s Gut, have at it.

So after the sites were approved, an owner at an adjacent community found out about the aquaculture sites. Within days, all of the communities had notified their residents and we began the process of trying to correct this wrong. Right now we are fighting to have the Army Corps of Engineers deny the blanket permitting of these sites. Regardless of the outcome of that process, until the proposed sites are moved or eliminated, there will still be a threat to our bays.